People are being urged to ensure they are up-to-date with their MMR vaccines before travelling abroad, going to festivals or starting university. It comes after Public Health England (PHE) reported large ongoing measles outbreaks in Europe, with a number of outbreaks in England too.
Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at PHE, said: “The majority of cases we are seeing are in teenagers and young adults who missed out on their MMR vaccine when they were children.
“Anyone who missed out on their MMR vaccine [for measles, mumps, and rubella] in the past or are unsure if they had two doses should contact their GP practice to catch up.”
What is measles?
NHS Choices defines measles as a highly contagious viral infection that appears as a rash with cold-like symptoms.
Dr Nitin Shori, GP and medical director of the Pharmacy2U Online Doctor service, previously told HuffPost UK: “Measles is a highly infectious disease and can lead to serious complications, so it pays to take any steps possible to guard against you or a loved one catching it.
“Like flu, the measles virus is spread in the tiny droplets of mucus, which become airborne when an infected person coughs or sneezes.” You can easily catch measles by breathing in these droplets or by touching a contaminated surface (they can survive for several hours out of the body).
Symptoms of measles
NHS Choices lists the most common symptoms of measles as:
Fever (that can reach more than 40 degrees).
Diarrhoea and sickness.
Sore red eyes that might be sensitive to light.
Cold-like symptoms such as a runny nose and headache.
After these initial symptoms appear, several days later you will see a red-brown blotchy rash that spreads all over the body, but normally starts on the head or upper neck.
Koplik (or Coplik) are an indicator of measles virus two to three days before other symptoms appear. They are small white spots that appear on the inside of the mouth and often fade as the rash starts to appear. They are important in diagnosing measles and often helpful in containing the virus before it becomes it’s most contagious. Not everyone gets these spots.
Symptoms of measles usually appear 10-12 days after exposure to an infected person. As soon as you suspect you or your child might have measles you need to get in touch with your GP for a diagnosis.
It is best to phone rather than go to the surgery as staff might need to make alternative arrangements to stop further infection.
For most people measles is not dangerous but just an irritation, and the infection normally clears in seven to 10 days.
There are only a small handful of cases where this develops into a bigger problem. Dr Shori explained: “More serious complications can include pneumonia or bronchitis, permanent eye diseases and even a potentially fatal brain disorder.”
If you are treating yourself (or your child) at home, NHS Choices recommends:
- Take paracetamol or give children Calpol - remember aspirin should not be given to under 16s and over the counter medicines not to those aged six and under.
- Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
- Close the curtains to reduce light sensitivity.
- Use damp cotton wool to clean the face and reduce temperature.
Advice for parents
Measles doesn’t usually concern a lot of UK parents as most children (92%) are given the MMR jab as part of routine childhood vaccinations. The MMR jab is provided for free to all children on the NHS as part of their routine immunisation programme. The first time is at 12-13 months old, and the second time is before they start primary school at three or four years old.
However figures released in 2015 showed a drop in take-up of MMR jabs for the first time in seven years, with approximately 24,000 children not being taken for their immunisation every year.
PHE urges all parents to get their children vaccinated.
Should adults get the MMR jab if they haven’t had it?
In short, yes. “It is not too late to protect yourself against the measles virus if you missed out on vaccination as a child,” Dr Shori said. “People of any age can seek a vaccination against measles and should speak to their GP if they are concerned that they might not have protection against the disease.”
In August 2016, Public Health England issued a warning to adult festival goers in the UK about checking on their MMR immunisation history before attending large events, as 234 cases were reported between January and June. Dr Ramsay said: “Young people who missed their MMR jab as children are vulnerable, especially if gathered in large numbers at an event.”
If you are trying to get pregnant you should check that you have had your routine MMR jabs and are up-to-date.